In a free society, all of us are rebels against something. In a society where freedom of religion is part of the social contract, every adult chooses which ideas, which denomination, which philosophy, which tribe they want to align themselves with. And in doing so, each of us rebels against somebody else’s self-proclaimed authority. For some in the Jewish community, I am a rabbi. For others, I am a “rabbi.” For still others I am a heretic.
The same can be said for any clergy person of any faith tradition. Ask a passionately devout Sunni to describe the heresy of Shi’ism and the threat it poses to the true understanding of Islam. Then ask a devout Shia to describe how Shi’ite Islam represents the true revelation of the faith. Each narrative rebels against the other.
This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Judaism’s most famous rebel, Korach.
Korach, along with two other tribal leaders, Datan and Abiram, challenge Moses and Aaron’s authority over the Israelites. “You have too much power. The entire community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal One is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal one’s assembly?” The rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud depict Korach as having great skill in Jewish law. They describe him initiating a long, drawn out debate with Moses over detailed points of Jewish law, in which Korach tries to entrap Moses using legislative slights of hand.
Korach is a rebel who has come on the scene prepared for a coup d’etat. He’s organized 250 leading figures to stand with him, and the first time he brings his grievances he does so in public, at a staged event designed to rally the people behind him and topple the regime. He is seen by the tradition as the rebel with the gift of demagoguery. He claims to be standing up for a noble value – spiritual equality – as he tries to paint the established leaders as unfair and hypocritical. Korach presents himself as a righteous whistle blower, and yet tradition holds him up as a fake.
Our Torah portion this week begins with the words eeshah kee taz-reeyah v’yaldah zachar…, which means, “In the case of a woman who has conceived seed and given birth to a male…” The passage then goes on to describe the process this new mom will go through in terms of ritual purification following the act of giving birth. After describing the procedure following the birth of a baby boy, it outlines the process after the birth of a girl. Regarding natural human experiences involving blood, bodily fluids, life or death, in the eyes of Leviticus people who have these experiences shifted from being ritually pure to impure, and then would follow specific rituals to re-purify.
Our text says that after the birth of the baby, the mom becomes tamay, ritually impure, for a set number of days, and then it describes the ritual purification process she will go through to return to a state of taharah, ritual purity. To reestablish her state of purity she goes to the central sanctuary and brings an offering. As is often the case with these kinds of passages in the Torah, there is an economic sliding scale put into the law to make sure that poverty doesn’t prevent a new mom from being able to participate.
I’m closing in on finishing up my third book. It’s working title is The (Book) of Joshua, and the publisher is Cascade Books, the same folks who published my previous two books. The book focuses in on the story of an ancient rabbi who played a key role in giving us the kind of Judaism we recognize today. Below are descriptions of 3 different kinds of programs I’m available to offer at synagogues, JCCs, or in interfaith learning settings.
D’var Torah (Sermon): Introducing Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah – the First Century Sage Who Gave Us the Judaism We Know
How did Judaism get its love of debate? Its openness to multiple viewpoints and its questioning nature, including questioning God? There were many ancient rabbis who wanted Judaism to be more doctrinal and less open to debate, more intolerant of other faiths, more internally hierarchical, and more focused on the afterlife than on this life. What caused Judaism to take the shape it took?
There were many rabbis who helped shape these attributes of Judaism. And yet, about 1900 years ago, there was one rabbi in particular whose decisions and teachings may very well have created the “tipping point” that set Judaism on its course to become the decentralized, multi-opinionated, exile-surviving, other-religion-respecting, pragmatic-yet-altruistic, wounded-yet-hopeful religion that we recognize in our time. Strangely, the vast majority of Jews today have never heard of him. And outside the Jewish world he is utterly unknown. His name was Joshua ben Hananiah, and this talk is about him.
Text study with discussion: Birthing the Judaism of Debate and Sacred Doubt: Rabbi Joshua Speaks to Us
One of the best known stories in the Talmud depicts a debate pitting Rabbi Joshua and a
bunch of his colleagues taking sides against the most brilliant rabbi of their era, Rabbi Eliezer the Great. The story is sometimes referred to as “Akhnai’s Oven,” because the dispute centered on a question regarding whether or not a particular communal oven was ritually “pure.” Eliezer musters every conceivable argument but fails to persuade his colleagues, who vote him down on the ruling. In the frustration known only to geniuses who clearly see what everyone else can’t, Eliezer loses his cool and summons divine miracles to demonstrate that God thinks he is right. The miracles all manifest, but one by one Rabbi Joshua leads the rabbinic majority in refusing to consider the miracles as valid arguments. In the end, a divine voice from the heavens announces to all of them that Eliezer is right, but in a classic act of Jewish chutzpah directed towards God, Joshua rejects God’s attempt to intervene in the rabbinic process of debate and majority rule.
We’ll work through a new translation of this classic rabbinic text in order to gain an understanding of how this story has shaped Judaism’s embrace of sacred debate and even sacred doubt. We’ll also look at the tensions and ambivalences the narrative expresses about its own conclusions. Even though this story appears to reject Rabbi Eliezer’s absolutism, certainty, and authoritarian impulses, it also critiques the way Joshua and the other rabbis treat Eliezer in the aftermath of the debate. “Akhnai’s Oven” offer us a distant mirror as we grapple with our own social struggles over questions of authority, democracy, multiple perspectives on truth, and the legitimate or illegitimate sources of power.
A text will be provided in English: Rabbi Harris’ new translation of Bava Metzia 58a – 59b
Workshop: Illness, Trauma, and the “Wounded Storyteller”: Rabbi Joshua Speaks to Us
Rabbi Joshua and his contemporaries survived the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, and in the years immediately following that national catastrophe they struggled to make sense of their situation and the purpose of their lives. Rabbi Joshua emerged as a crucial voice encouraging the other survivors to develop what we, in modern times, might call a healthy, honest, and adaptive process of grieving and meaning-making.
During this workshop we’ll look at an ancient text describing how Rabbi Joshua advises a group of young rabbis who are coping with the aftermath of the Roman devastation by turning to a life of severe asceticism. Instead of asceticism, Rabbi Joshua urges that they embrace the possibility of becoming what the contemporary writer, Arthur W. Frank, describes as wounded storytellers. We’ll bring the text and its ideas into a conversation with Frank’s ideas and our own personal thoughts and feelings about the challenges of integrating loss, illness, and woundedness in our lives.
Texts will be provided in English: Tosefta Sotah 15: 11 – 15 and excerpts from Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
If you think these sound like fun adult ed programs that people at your congregation would enjoy, contact me! I’m at mauricedharris (at) gmail (dot) com. Even if you’re located far from me in Eugene, Oregon, I do travel to different parts of the country from time to time for various reasons, and I’m always interested in finding ways to do some teaching when I’m out of town.
I’m thinking about possibly starting an online Jewish education venture that would involve me creating a series of 4 to 6 minute long YouTube videos offering a quickie overview of different Jewish texts, historical figures, etc. I know that there are already a few things out there, like the fabulous G-dcast, but I think there’s a niche I could establish that would help a lot of people and possibly generate some good career opportunities for me.
A couple years ago I was monkeying around with this concept and I created this “Overview of Sacred Jewish Texts” video, which is too long, muddled, and visually uninteresting to quite fit the bill.
I like the idea of creating videos that make Jewish texts, from the different books of the Torah to various rabbinic texts, accessible to the general public. My vision is to create videos that are not dumbed down, but that remain committed to high degrees of comprehension from viewers who are newcomers. Each video would end with a screen shot of recommended links to other online resources that viewers can use to expand upon what they’ve learned in my videos. I’d call that the “Now go and learn…” feature, echoing the ancient sage, Hillel, who is responsible for both the “on one foot” and the “go and learn” memes in Judaism.
I’m interested in what kinds of grants I might be able to apply for. Perhaps I should go ahead and create a starter set of these videos and then seek additional funding. I don’t know. Interested in others thoughts in the comments here or privately.
Here’s another example of a video I created that seeks to help people use a structured method to writing a d’var Torah (a sermon) on the weekly Torah portion.
Again, I feel it’s a bit dry, but I wonder if anyone out there would be willing to comment or send me private feedback as to whether something like this would be useful.
As we enter into the part of the year in which we read the Exodus story in our synagogues, here’s an excerpt from a chapter from my recent book, Moses: A Stranger among Us, that I hope you’ll enjoy. The book is a terrific resource for clergy of all faiths, especially those looking for good stuff for sermons, and it’s also a really accessible and usable scholarly work on Moses. What follows is part of Chapter 10, “Moses” – the quotation marks are intentional, as in someone making air quotation marks as they say the name Moses.
Since 1985, a group of Christian Bible scholars have worked on what has been known as the Jesus Seminar. Their web site states, “. . . the Seminar was organized to discover and report a scholarly consensus on the historical authenticity of the sayings . . . and events . . . attributed to Jesus in the gospels.”
Even though their work involves questioning the historical accuracy of how the New Testament presents Jesus, many of the Jesus Seminar professors are also Christian pastors invested in a living Christian faith. By closely analyzing the New Testament texts and reviewing other available historical information, these scholars have sought to develop theories about who the actual, historical Jesus may have been, and which sayings and actions attributed to him are most likely to be authentic.
In part, what they seek to do is better understand how their religion evolved in its first two centuries of being. They want to better
understand the various early Christian groups that produced the different gospels, for instance, and how each of them may have shaped or added to the teachings attributed to Jesus over the years.
It’s important to bear in mind that in the ancient world, the common practice was for disciples of a great master to add to his (or occasionally, her) sayings and teachings. When faithful disciples would add to their master’s sayings, they would often attribute the new sayings to him, out of respect and loyalty to the school of thought that he had founded. Disciples and students were not eager to claim personal authorship of new ideas for themselves, nor did they have the need modern Westerners often have for historical accuracy.
When rival groups of disciples of the same master would interpret the master’s life and teachings differently, they would be sure to develop additional sayings in his name that reflected their varying ideological perspectives. In this way, a master’s teachings would sometimes develop over time along different ideological lines, in some cases evolving beyond what the master himself would have condoned or even imagined. This was a practice that was so normal that it was not noteworthy in the ancient world. (The Islamic studies professor, Omid Safi, commenting about similar processes that have played out in Islam, writes: “There might have been one historical Muhammad, but there have been many memories of Muhammad.”) – from his book, Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters
In Jewish tradition, scholars see the same pattern having played out among the early rabbis. There are many teachings and sayings attributed in the Talmud to great sages like Hillel or Rabbi Akiva, for example. Both men had many disciples and developed popular schools of thought. It is likely that over time, sayings accrued to them that they never actually uttered. Sometimes different groups within a developing religious tradition would join together to consolidate and canonize an official version of their sacred texts. This usually involved discussion and compromise, as the different groups would each want their own texts and traditions included in the canon. In the ancient Middle East, the canonizers of sacred texts were not operating within the framework of modern Western writing, and therefore they were quite comfortable putting multiple and even contradictory written traditions alongside each other as part of the finalized sacred canon.
The canonizers of the New Testament, like the redactors of the Torah that I discussed in chapter 6, were not threatened by presenting their contemporary readers with a Bible designed as a composite text that includes multiple accounts of the same story, complete with contradictions and logical or narrative conflicts. This is why there are four gospels in the New Testament, not just one. The New Testament even presents two gospels that have conflicting genealogies of Jesus’s ancestry (see Matthew and Luke).
As the scholars involved in the Jesus Seminar have continued their work, they have offered a new way of looking at Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament. They see Jesus as a literary composite figure, a combination of some of his own authentic teachings as well as the varying and sometimes conflicting teachings of others who came after him. Some of these scholars have even started writing about the difference between “Jesus” and Jesus. “Jesus” is the composite literary character we find when we take the entire New Testament as a whole that is made up of many component parts: different writings from different communities with different agendas, writings that were joined together by editors and canonizers. Jesus – without quotes – is the historical person who lived, taught, inspired large numbers of people, and died about 2,000 years ago in Roman occupied Judea.
Needless to say, the written use of “Jesus” as a way of making a distinction that is important to the Jesus Seminar scholars was bound to upset some Christian religious traditionalists. One of the most common criticisms of the Jesus Seminar from some Christian conservatives is that their entire endeavor is heresy. Once they deconstruct traditional Christian belief to the point that Jesus becomes “Jesus,” the conservatives argue, they’ve left the fold. Many liberal Christians, on the other hand, disagree, and don’t see a threat to their tradition through this kind of historical inquiry.
In rabbinical school we were required to take a course on Christianity taught by a local Methodist minister . . . who is also a Jesus Seminar scholar. Rev. Dr. Hal Taussig shared how the research he has done into who the historical Jesus might have been has deepened his appreciation for the best aspects of his religion. In addition to the interest he expressed in discovering which sayings and teachings are most likely to have been authentic to the historical Jesus, Dr. Taussig also has found great value in identifying the sayings that were most likely attributed to Jesus by others during the decades following his death. This information reveals insight into how spiritual life developed in early Christian communities under different circumstances. What Dr. Taussig modeled was a way of relating to one’s own religion with an attitude of excitement and curiosity about what kinds of truth and beauty one might see if one is willing to look behind the curtain of the myth, letting go of dogma and approaching the past with a sense of curiosity and adventure. It’s in this same spirit that I have chosen to write this last chapter not on Moses, but rather on “Moses.”
I gave this talk at Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR) in 2004.
D’var Torah – Parashat Vayechi 5765 – December 25, 2004
By Rabbi Maurice Harris
This week’s Torah Portion is Vayechi, the last parashah of the Book of Breishit, the Book of Genesis. It is the closing chapter of a book that began with the creation of the universe, took us through the drama of the first human beings, through the stories of the first Jews – Sarah and Abraham and their extended family – and finally through the exhilarating and powerful cycle of stories surrounding Joseph. Breishit opens with the beginning of all things and closes with Joseph and his bretheren dwelling securely in the land of Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing. The last word of the parashah is the Hebrew word for Egypt – mitzrayim. The stage is set for the second book of the Torah, Shemot – Exodus – and the drama of enslavement and redemption that form the next chapters of the Torah’s epic story.
You may recall the story of how Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, only to rise from an Egyptian jail to become the second in command of the Egyptian empire.
When we pick up this week, Joseph has reconciled with his brothers, and the entire family, including his frail, aging father, Jacob, has settled in Egypt. Hearing that his father Jacob has fallen ill, Jospeh brings his two sons, the first born, M’nasheh, and the younger one, Ephraim, to their grandfather. Jacob proceeds to bless his grandsons. In a gesture that has become commonplace in this family, Jacob gives the favored blessing traditionally reserved for the first born son to the younger son instead – a moment that I could easily spend the rest of this talk examining, but that will have to wait for another time.
Later in the parashah, Jacob gives his final words to his assembled sons. Jacob also asks his sons to bury his body in the Cave of Machpela, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and his wife Leah were buried. Jacob dies, and Egypt’s finest courtiers accompany the funeral caravan all the way to the Land of Canaan, where Jacob’s sons bury him at Machpela. After burying their father, Joseph’s brothers go through one more moment of anxiety about their having sold Joseph into slavery. They become worried that, with their father Jacob no longer alive, Joseph may rediscover his anger at his brothers for their terrible treatment of him. The brothers reconfirm their reconciliation, and the parashah concludes with Joseph’s last remarks to his brothers.
This was a d’var I wrote for the organization currently known as T’ruah, but at the time as Rabbis for Human Rights – North America.
There’s an oft-quoted midrash that tells a simple but powerful tale. A group of travelers are in a boat upon the open waters, when one of them suddenly takes out a hand-drill and begins drilling a hole under his seat. Astonished, the others turn to him and say, “What are you doing?” He responds by saying, “What concern is it of yours? I’m drilling under my own seat!” The others then spell out the obvious truth that he is unable to perceive – that his actions affect them all, and that they are all in the same boat.
As I considered the famous story of Noah and the Great Flood in this week’s parashah, I wondered: what if the boat this misguided traveler was aboard had been Noah’s ark? If we transplant the boat midrash to Noah’s ark, then the man drilling a hole under his own seat becomes someone who just might cause the entire living world to perish.
The story of Noah’s ark and the boat midrash both teach about interdependence and shared destiny. The boat midrash particularly reminds us that there are certain destructive actions that imperil all of us even if just one of us is allowed to carry them out. In addition, it teaches that we are all responsible for making sure that everyone in the community (aboard the boat) adheres to certain basic rules so that we don’t all drown. Human rights advocates can draw on both of these stories to illustrate some of our core beliefs: that we human beings are the guarantors of each other’s basic rights, and that our universal human rights only exist when we take them on as universal human responsibilities.
Too often, here in the U.S., our leaders have decided to set human rights aside in this or that case for the sake of some other highly desired political, military, or economic outcome. We live in a moment when some politicians openly brag about their support for casting aside human rights in our treatment of prisoners. And even government leaders who support human rights choose to make exceptions.
In addition, our elected officials frequently turn a blind eye to human rights abuses by other nations so that our industries can continue to do brisk business and our consumers continue to get cheap products. When political leaders do this, their sense of urgency is deeply misplaced. Often they’ll justify these decisions by saying that the consistent application of a commitment to human rights is an ideal to be achieved incrementally, whereas economic or short term political concerns are supposedly urgent. When we permit our elected officials to do this, we as Americans choose to let somebody else drill a hole under their seat in the boat. We usually rationalize that we can’t control what other’s do, or that sometime later we’ll prioritize urging them to stop.
The ancient rabbis taught that a person who has the capacity to object to the harmful actions of others and does not bears some of the responsibility for the harm that’s done. This is not an easy mitzvah to uphold – not in the small worlds of our families and workplaces, nor in the larger world of governments and nations. But it’s an essential mitzvah for humanity to practice if we are ever to rise above the willingness to violate human rights or stand idly by while others do so. For human rights to become deeply rooted worldwide, they need to be upheld in all times and places.
(Note: the video above is of an early ’70s pop song called “Noah,” sung by Matti Caspi. If you want an English translation visit here.)